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Critic's notebook: A shrinking harvest? 

When showcases rise, what standards fall in regional dance?

The economics of modern dance--at least as it is currently practiced--tend to do several things to the region's emerging choreographers and dancers. Some it drives together. Others it drives off. In some cases it does one first, and then the other.

Increasingly in recent years, we've seen area dance artists band together in their work. Some have affiliated to share artistic visions and personnel--the dancers required to realize a work of choreography. Others have only joined to share production costs incurred in placing work before the public.

At the same time, college and university programs have regularly made their students and their spaces available to guests in attempts to make their offerings more robust.

As a result, the showcase concert has become the vehicle of choice--if not necessity--all but totally replacing the full-length showings that were once a part of regional dance. It's a sea change, and one worthy of more than a moment's notice.

Once Killian Manning, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Peter Carpenter, Tiffany Rhynard and others made annual (or even more frequent) major showings an important part of dance art in the area. It's significant to note that at least half of their number did so while juggling graduate coursework, teaching or an advanced professional career unrelated to dance.

In some of their concerts, unifying concepts focused various short-form works and fused them into a whole bigger than its constituent parts. In others, long-form pieces plumbed depths unattainable in brief, 5-15 minute dance essays.

Such works, such artistic visions have largely gone missing this season.

What has taken their place is not entirely satisfactory.

Indisputably, collegiate and independent showcases have exposed audiences to a broad array of artists, exploring a wide range of styles. The "big tent" has been a proven way of building community and audiences; it's how a supportive community of artists behaves, in part. And showcases have given promising students and nascent choreographers valid initial and early encounters with the public.

On the other hand, this season's showcases have seriously miscalculated some of the work they've put before the public eye. Just as disturbing, they've arguably given too comfortable a context to choreographers who've grown too content with minimal yearly creative output and growth.

Works belonging in a student recital, and not a public concert, have been placed alongside ensemble pieces whose ragged execution belie inadequate discipline and/or rehearsal.

If such glitches were momentary aberrations from a larger body of work that was otherwise distinguished in technique, they would not bear mention. When they characterize the only work seen from a choreographer in a given year, they take on a very different meaning.

These words will no doubt sound harsh to some practitioners in the field. Still, it's time we all faced a few uncomfortable facts. An entire category--or two--of artist has all but vanished from regional modern dance. Call them the long-form choreographer, and the choreographer who actually produces enough work in a year to fill at least one full-length concert. (Commitment check, anyone?)

And if these categories of artist haven't disappeared, the mode in which they have created and presented their work all but certainly has. The question why arises. And close scrutiny is surely called for what has come to take their place.

Clearly, it takes more than a stopwatch and a toteboard to discern the dilettante from the committed choreographer. And surely enough summers have passed at the American Dance Festival for all to have tasted perfection in five minutes--and mediocrity (or worse) in a work 10 times that length.

But by now it's equally clear that eight sloppy minutes of work in a year does not a choreographer make. It's also obvious that those who permit that level of work on their stage are defining themselves more in terms of what they will put up with than what they are at best. Either way, they clearly hurt not just themselves but regional dance in the process.

I don't believe this is an exaggeration. Almost by definition, a showcase concert featuring multiple choreographers from the same area makes the artistic case, not only for an individual company or choreographer, but for the entire community. What it shows, implicitly, is the best work that someone believes that community of artists has to offer.

In this way, a showcase's hosts don't just put artists before the public. They are putting their standards of excellence on display as well.

Those standards have slipped on more than one occasion this season. When they have, the community in toto has been defined in unfortunate ways. Which is the real reason why it's time to raise a fuss about the gatekeeping for such concerts. In the absence of other forms, showcases are now the de facto standard-bearers for our region's dance. When they slip, in a sense, everything slips with them.

Since the scope of North Carolina dance has grown, it's good to find more than one curator interested in canvassing, collecting and presenting that work to the public.

That's no indictment of the North Carolina Dance Festival, that yearly-changing caravan of regional artists who cross-pollinate with local artists in six cities across the state during the fall and winter. If anything, it's a tribute to the festival's success in raising awareness, statewide, about the dance creation going on.

Indeed, the success of the original makes offshoots inevitable--and all give testimony to the vitality of the art they celebrate. Crossing genres for a moment, by such reckoning the success of Utah's Sundance Festival necessitated Slamdance and all the other film fests that followed in its wake. In each, different aesthetic and editorial principles hold sway--which all but has to happen when different curators look at the same artform. The point is the artform is big enough for all of them.

Which is why we welcomed last weekend's inaugural N.C. Dances concert at Cary Academy as a significant development not just in local dance, but for dance statewide. Choreographers and performers from Wilmington to Asheville and from Ellerbe to Greensboro brought their works to the academy's underutilized Fine Art Center.

Best moments from the evening included Nelson Reyes' complex, comic work for Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, X Motivo Para Ser Asi (X amount of motives to be the way he is). This dubious curriculum vita of a fumbling central character's experiences with five women constitutes a witty, knowing monument to male insecurity, self-obsession, and what we'll delicately call a heartbreaking lack of romantic technique. Full characters, robust choreography, intriguing stage design and a wise eye toward all-too-human foibles: We must see more from this young artist.

North Carolina Dance Festival founder Jan Van Dyke explored human foibles in a very different light in Taking Leave, a pensive comparative study of the end of two different relationships, for accomplished dancers Katie Baker, Lauren Tepper, Virginia Ray Freeman and Kelly Swindell, to music by Mozart.

Before these, host Betsy Ward-Hutchinson opened the show by decanting her completed Bodies of Water. After an initial movement contrasted two women's different relationships with the sea, Ward-Hutchinson found humor in a variation on the mermaid myth in part two. The third section had dancers explore near-Rorschach patterns enacting currents with striking symmetrical hand and body movement to music by Philip Glass.

Can such a statewide invitational possibly be the last? What would a weekend devoted to self-curated student choreography, at the graduate or advanced undergraduate level, look like? A night for the edgiest feminist dance from across the state? A hip-hop dance colloquium?

What's really needed to realize any of these visions besides a curator and a space? EndBlock

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